Analysis | Hopes are high for the Cowboys. Can they avoid another playoff heartbreak?

This is who the Dallas Cowboys are. This is what they do. They tantalize. They raise hopes. They create belief. They foster expectations that, this time, things will be different — that, this time, they will break through and return the franchise to its “America’s Team” birthright by getting back to the Super Bowl.

For going on three decades, the next step has been to disappoint, to fall short and to turn the postseason glories of the Cowboys’ past into fading memories.

That could change in the coming weeks. It could be different this time. The Cowboys are convinced of it. What choice do they have? Once more, they have a team capable of getting it done. They won the NFC East and secured the conference’s No. 2 seed, and they’ll be on a home field that has been very kind to them when they host the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers in an opening-round NFC playoff game Sunday.

“It’s hope, faith, belief, trust, all those things,” Coach Mike McCarthy said after the Cowboys’ 38-10 triumph Sunday over the Washington Commanders at FedEx Field that clinched the division title and No. 2 seed. “That’s what you’re building over the course of an 18-week season. … It’s as strong of a locker room that I’ve been around. … Hope is a powerful thing.”

The Cowboys have not played in the Super Bowl since the 1995 season. Their chances of rectifying that rest on a quarterback, Dak Prescott, who led the NFL in touchdown passes (with 36) one season after tying for the league lead in interceptions. They rest on a wide receiver, CeeDee Lamb, who became the first Cowboys player to lead the NFL in catches (with 135) in a season. They rest on a defense that ranked fifth in the league.

They rest on a coach, McCarthy, who has overseen three straight 12-win regular seasons. They rest on a rookie kicker, Brandon Aubrey, who made his first 35 field goal attempts before missing twice Sunday to finish 36 for 38. And they rest on playing at home for, if they keep winning, at least the first two rounds of the NFC playoffs. The Cowboys were the only NFL team to go unbeaten at home this season. They have a 16-game winning streak at AT&T Stadium.

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“We’re at home [next weekend],” standout pass rusher Micah Parsons said in the postgame locker room Sunday at FedEx Field. “So I feel like we’re the team to beat right now.”

Lamb said: “I just feel like it gives us an edge.”

Prescott said he believes the Cowboys are “very ready” to take the next step with a run deep into the postseason. The feeling entering this postseason “for sure” is different, he said, than in previous seasons.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last month that this is the team’s best Super Bowl opportunity since the 2007 season, when a 13-3 record with Tony Romo at quarterback gave way to a divisional-round playoff loss to the New York Giants. Jones called that his biggest disappointment as the team’s owner.

The Cowboys were ousted from the playoffs the previous two seasons by the San Francisco 49ers. That remains an issue because the 49ers are the No. 1 seed and would host the Cowboys in the NFC championship game if both advance that far. But for now, the Cowboys must focus on their first-round matchup with the Packers, the team McCarthy once coached to a Super Bowl title.

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Prescott was a rookie in the 2016 season when the Cowboys lost to McCarthy’s Packers in a memorable divisional-round game. The Packers prevailed, 34-31, on a 51-yard field goal as time expired, set up by a 35-yard, third-and-20 completion from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to tight end Jared Cook with three seconds remaining.

The Cowboys certainly have their flaws. They went 4-5 on the road. They were crushed by the 49ers in an October game in Santa Clara, Calif., and spent much of the season roughing up the lesser teams on their schedule while being unable to beat quality opponents. They finally got a signature victory over an upper-tier team by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in December in Arlington, Tex., and they followed that with road losses to the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

“You’re going to get knocked on your [butt] in this league,” McCarthy said. “Very few teams go through it and don’t experience that.”

McCarthy’s job security has been a topic of speculation for much of his Cowboys tenure. That remains the case, with ongoing conjecture that his job could be in jeopardy if the team has another disappointing playoff performance. He has a 1-2 record in postseason play with the Cowboys.

Jones declined following the triumph over the Commanders to fully commit to retaining McCarthy beyond this season, telling reporters that “we’ll see how each game goes” in the playoffs. But in a radio interview Tuesday with Dallas-area station 105.3 the Fan, Jones praised McCarthy’s coaching, pointed out that he’s under contract for next season and said McCarthy’s job security is “not an issue.”

McCarthy has given his players a team motto for each of his four seasons with the Cowboys. This season’s was “Carpe Omnia: Seize Everything.”

If that’s going to occur, now is the time for the Cowboys to make it happen.

“We’re always confident in our team, in our ability,” Lamb said. “We know what we put out there. Everybody in the NFL knows what kind of team we are. We’ve just got to go out there and show it.”

Prescott, who could be in line for a hefty contract extension, has a career playoff record of 2-4. He was asked Sunday about his choice of wearing a winter hat to his postgame news conference rather than a cap commemorating the NFC East crown. Was that his way of sending a message that the team has far loftier goals?

“I wouldn’t say I’m trying to send a message or anything,” Prescott said. “This hat is warmer.”

Even so, that message was valid.

“We’ve won [the division title] before,” Prescott said. “Obviously this is a huge accomplishment for myself, for this team, for this organization. … But the focus is ahead.”

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